Afghanistan - Hope Postponed…Again
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Afghanistan. A word and country that brings many emotions and thoughts to Americans and citizens of the world.
When I first traveled to Afghanistan over twenty-five years ago, most people I knew, probably most Americans, would ask, “Afghanistan, I think I’ve heard of that. Where is it?” It would be quite surprising to hear that reaction today. I first heard about the country’s background from my mission professor in seminary in the mid-’80s. Christie Wilson grew up in Iran with missionary parents, who—as a young boy—told his parents that he was going to lead a church “over there,” pointing towards Afghanistan. His parents told him that the country was closed to Christians, but they were not aware of how specific God’s Spirit could work in the heart of a young boy. He did lead a church in Afghanistan for a number of years before a change in government expelled him and his family from the country and bulldozed the church.
My first trip to Afghanistan came at the end of a month-long journey through the Middle East and Central Asia. I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the time I met my friend, who was serving as an NGO (Non-Government Organization worker) serving in Afghanistan. We met up in Peshawar, Pakistan. Up to that moment of my trip I had been awakened by bus bombs in the downtown area of Jerusalem and I had been arrested in Egypt for sneaking into the country illegally (with two soldiers standing behind me holding rifles, I was confronted by the commander I stood before, he saying that my name was not on the manifest of the flight I’d declared. In that tense room, I was bold enough to ask to see the manifest. I pointed my finger at my name; they had reversed my first and last name. Everything changed and it was all hugs and happy salutations as they sent me on my way). My PIA flight to Pakistan was filled with people returning from their hajj to Mecca, secretly smoking cigarettes and sleeping all over the aisles. Not your normal long-haul flight. Finding my friend after three weeks of traveling alone was a great relief and seeing his smiling face brought me peace.
We traveled into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass in a jeep with two eye-doctors who, years later, sadly, were murdered by the Taliban next to their jeep that was traveling to the next hospital to perform eye surgeries. Every fifteen miles through the craggy pass, we would drop off our armed escort and pick up a new one. Most had rifles held together with duct tape—not too comforting. When we reached Jalalabad, I was told the Taliban was waiting outside the city ready to attack. This also was not too comforting. So my experience in Jalalabad was wonderful and horrifying. The people were welcoming, gracious, and lively, but the evening sounds (thunk, boom) of the Taliban canons brought me close to a full-blown panic attack. To this day I do not enjoy any part of a fireworks displays because the sounds are so similar to those Taliban canons.
My second trip was direct from the US to Islamabad, Pakistan where I caught a UN flight to Herat to visit my same NGO friend. By that time, the Taliban was in control of the city. Afghans were living in deep fear. The jeeps filled with young Taliban warriors continually cruised through the city with their rifles at the ready and their menacing looks at all those they passed. Women were beaten for no reason. Men were thrown into containers (the empty backs of trucks) for having hair that was too “Western” or beards that were trimmed too short. I caught the eye of one of the young Taliban men driving by and held his gaze. I looked intently into his eyes covered with eyeliner and mascara and squinted as we locked into our brief, intense encounter. There was emptiness and heavy darkness in his eyes. There was a profound sense of evil that invaded my soul. To quote a Harry Potter book, “It was as though all the happiness had gone from the world.” I grieved for that young man.
After September 11, 2001, I was overwhelmed by responsibility preaching to the congregation. There were so many emotions within the congregation I needed to be sensitive to, but I knew my message was to be prophetic as opposed to pastoral. I had a strong need to define the difference between the Afghan people and the Taliban. Newscasters were blending the two together in the early days after the attack. The reality was the Afghan people were the oppressed and the Taliban were the oppressors. I knew after the attack on our country there would be a swift response. I never imagined we would be there for twenty years. Afghanistan has been called, “The Graveyard of Empires.” From Genghis Khan to the British and Soviets, and now to America, no empire or nation has been able to subdue Afghanistan.
So, today we see the horror of the evacuations. Not just staff from other countries, not just Afghans who worked with foreign entities, not just NGO’s, but so many fear-filled Afghans desperately rushing the airport and planes to escape another Taliban rule. I cry. My heart is broken. It is hard to cling to any optimism, but with 65% of the population being under the age of 25, with it now being commonplace for girls and women to be educated and working, with numerous businesses beginning to thrive, and life in many villages and cities feeling “normal,” I have a hint that postponed hope will move towards true hope. I pray that the work of the Afghans and NGO’s will sustain people to move forward. Even today I read that young people removed the Taliban flag in the center of the city of Jalalabad and returned the Afghan flag.
I have so many fond memories of my visits to Afghanistan: In Jalalabad a group of boys had tightly bundled a crumple of papers and were playing a made-up game using broken branches. Using a camera was a faux pas, but I held my camera to my stomach and began taking pictures. The boys saw me and gathered together for a group photo. I got a great one. Thirteen boys grouped together, displaying their personalities, from bold to shy, defying the norms of photos. I have memories of walking through the market in Jalalabad receiving only kindness and respect; traveling on a UN plane into Herat and discovering the person in the seat in front of me had attended the University of Oregon…really; staying two weeks with my NGO friend in his mud hut that was cleaner than my house can be at times; meeting so many people, including the brothers who ran the corner fruit stand; I celebrate being invited to dinner with the fruit-stand brothers, a meal that was shared in a room filled with large pillows laying on the beautifully carpeted floor. (I was surprised that sharing dinner meant eating and talking until everyone passes out on the comfortable pillows.) I smile when I think of shopping in the bazaar in Herat only to be surrounded by a large group of men laughing as I was purchasing a burqa to bring home—all of them joking about me bringing it home for my American wife. I found out later that many loved the West and enjoyed watching American movies on VHS, with dark curtains drawn so that the Taliban would not know that they had electronics. And, trying my best to follow Taliban rules, I had grown a scraggly beard that had quite a lot of red in it. Men would want to touch it thinking I had finished my hajj and followed the practice of dying your beard with henna after a hajj. Please know and remember how the Afghan people in general are so different than the Taliban.
So, I beg you not just to send up swift prayers about Afghanistan today, but to sit thoughtfully and listen to God as you lift up many specific requests. Pray for so many living in fear. Pray for the government officials and NGO’s still in the country. And pray for the many Afghans who worked with the different governments and NGO’s who are still in the country. Pray also for the diaspora of Afghans who have left their home country for safety and employment opportunities over the past numerous decades. And also pray for the NGO’s, the Red Cross workers, the UN workers, and the many soldiers and their families who served the country so faithfully over the past twenty years—I’m sure we can barely imagine the emotions they are feeling.
God is good. I know that well. And, certainly, God is very present in Afghanistan. Pray with confidence, power, and passion.